When you're involved in a project and you see it isn't going to work out, the wisest thing is to simply throw the whole thing away.
- Alfred Hitchcock
The Wreck of the Mary Deare is not a good film, but it's notable for being a project once on the go for Alfred Hitchcock, as part of a one-picture deal with MGM.
Slated to follow The Wrong Man, neither the director nor writer Ernest Lehman could lick Hammond Innes' novel, which re-spun the mythic tale of the Mary Celeste a derelict ship found roaming the ocean without her recently abandoned crew by adding a courtroom drama, and a feeble action finale. (The drama of the Celeste was dramatized in the wobbly 1935 thriller, The Mystery of the Mary Celeste, starring Bela Lugosi.)
As he recounted to Francois Truffaut in the published career overview Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock found the story's opening too powerful: two salvage operators discover a derelict steamship, and a lone survivor prepared to run the ship aground on some strange suicidal mission.
The novel's giant, murky mystery, and the weird behaviour of an emotionally unstable lead character apparently led the director and screenwriter towards many convoluted explanations, and the project was wisely dumped in favour of Vertigo. When that film failed to click with audiences, Hitchcock reteamed with Lehman, and the result was North by Northwest, fulfilling their MGM commitment with a blockbuster, and a timeless classic.
Enter Michael Anderson, who had already shown he could handle a mix of ocean action & suspense with The Dam Busters, and Yangtse Incident: The Story of H.M.S. Amethyst - the latter written by Eric Ambler. Both Ambler and Anderson reteamed to tackle Innes' problematic plotting, and they partially succeeded in the story's most obvious section the opening third.
Hitchcock was probably drawn to the steeped mystery, which eventually dealt with a battle of oddly-paired wits: the young salvager's efforts to unearth the survivor's secret, while the ship's disintegration endangers their chances of reaching the mainland.
Anderson does an exceptional job in keeping us curious for a long time, mostly because of the unique casting of two ex-Paramount stars on diverging career paths: Charlton Heston on his steady climb as a top star, and Gary Cooper in his next-to-last film.
Just as effective are the extraordinary set that replicate huge chunks of the massive vessel, including a large tank for when Heston swings towards the freighter from a real tugboat in churning tank waters. Scenes where Heston stokes the boilers as water begins to rush into the hull are particularly potent, as are creepy scenes of Heston poking through rooms that were recently used by the absent crew eerie material for cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg, whose major credits were popular musicals, like Gigi.
Once Cooper wrecks the ship on a jagged reef, the narrative swings over to the courtroom drama, and no matter how much Ambler tries to reword the dialogue, the whole mystery hinges upon a series of thin events that are prolonged efforts to keep us curious: Cooper's withholding of the Big Secret long past the moment we succumb to boredom; and his short visit to the daughter of the ship's captain, which feels like a forced effort to get a pretty girl into the film. In the end, Virginia McKenna's role merely exists to produce a letter with some pivotal content, and to convey a key piece of info to Cooper when the chips are down; she's otherwise a banal character who disappears in the final act, never moving a foot closer to any kind of romance.
It's probably this middle third that formed the greatest headache for Hitchcock and Lehman, and it's the kind of tonal shift that adversely affected relatively sea tales, such as Ridley Scott's courtroom-bound White Squall, and Wolfgang Petersen's horribly melodramatic The Perfect Storm: in both cases, the story and audience interest collapses once the filmmakers are forced to cut away from their respective ship tragedies.
The film's final third brings in some Bondian action to offset the courtroom boredom, but the whole secret trek to the Mary Deare in search of proof is an inane MacGuffin, because their success in vindicating Cooper's innocence in the whole soggy mystery hinges upon the contracted salvage team being ethical, and willing to stop evil first mate Higgins (Richard Harris, in his third film role) from committing murder, in spite of the salvage team's awareness that a flooded compartment is strangely off-limits to all but the creepy Higgins.
On the plus side, Warner Bros.' source print in near-pristine, and their transfer is a gorgeous anamorphic presentation that glows with translucent blues, frothy whites, and sandy tones for the pretty harbour locations. MGM's production was clearly forced to use some of the older CinemaScope lenses, as the extreme edges in wide shots bend during panning movements, and some of the actors' visages suffer from CinemaScope mumps.
George Duning's orchestral score is rather sparse and restrained, and feels a bit too economical during the film's potent first third, although a shimmering electronic effect gives scenes an alluring mystery. (Duning's prior work for producer Julian Blaustein includes Bell Book and Candle, and Cowboy.)
Heston would move on to Ben-Hur and El Cid, while Cooper's final work would be for Anderson again, in The Naked Edge, released shortly after his death in 1961.
For more info on the Hitchcock connection, readers should check out the Donald Spoto biography, The Dark Side of Genius, which contains a lengthy recollection by Ernest Lehman.
This title is only available as part of the Gary Cooper Signature Collection, which includes Sergeant York, The Fountainhead, Dallas, Springfield Rifle, and The Wreck of the Mary Deare.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan